The Silk Roads and India

Silk routeFor a great power, China is quasi-landlocked; its maritime connections are only with the Pacific Ocean and related seas, along its Eastern seaboard. China’s huge land frontier abuts on 14 countries in Central, South, Southeast and East Asia. Geo-politics is at the core of China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) policy, projected as a series of ‘Silk Routes’, which also now re-frames its neighbourhood policy. Energy access is a prime driver. The Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) being set up in Beijing, initially funded with $50 billion, has drawn in flocks of Western countries as founder-members, apart from the US, Canada and Japan. It will provide part of OBOR’s financial muscle.

The invocation of land and seaborne ‘Silk Routes’ is a neat sleight of hand, packaging history and legend to serve current political purpose. It supplements the ‘China Dream’, the idiom through which President Xi Jinping appeals to the Chinese people to mobilise themselves as patriotic supporters of China’s vision of national greatness.

Consider history. For over two millennia, China was an anchor-destination to a series of trade routes that meandered across Asia, reaching out to the major markets of the time, covering other Asian regions, as also Europe. With the ebb and flow of supply and demand, the lines of commerce morphed and evolved. India, the other great Asian civilisation-state, developed its own trade routes, carrying its spices, cotton products and artifacts. These India-connectors also reached out to Central Asia, Europe, the Arab world, and East Africa. Hindu temples and traveller sarais in Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia affirm that traders from India camped afar to service this trade.

China and India traded extensively among themselves, testified by a flow of Buddhist scriptures and artifacts over 2,000 years, plus visits to India by Chinese scholars Faxian, Xuanzang and others. One route traversed the Karakoram Pass going on to Sinkiang and the interior of China. Tansen Sen’s study Buddhism, Diplomacy and Trade (2004) bears witness to the less known ‘Southern Route’ that linked India with China’s Yunnan province via Burma – a link that today’s planned BCIM Economic Corridor partly recreates. As for the Maritime Silk Route (MSR), also part of China’s OBOR project, India was one of the key anchors, in the 10th to 15th centuries and later, when Indian and Chinese ships joined traders from these lands across the seas, reaching varied ports and cities.

Against this background, how should India react to the Chinese project? If India stands aloof from OBOR in its land and maritime manifestations, is that not serious disservice both to history and contemporary Indian interests? What are India’s geopolitical compulsions?

First, to our west, a surly Pakistan, hostile to all things Indian, largely blocks Indian access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. The TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) pipeline project is a brave attempt to pierce that blockage, but many wonder if it will ever be built. It is far better for India to focus on the Chabahar port in Iran as its alternate access route to Central Asia.

Second, China’s $46 billion investment in Pakistan ($9 billion as infrastructure grants that connect Gwadar port to Sinkiang, traversing the length of Pakistan) and the balance as investment in a series of coal, gas, hydro and solar power plants intended to produce 16,400 Mw, doubling the country’s power capacity, may become a gamble. Can these actions reverse Pakistan’s existential crisis, that blends pervasive religious extremism, domestic-external terrorism, and schism induced by religious and regional disputes? Or will it enmesh China into Pakistan’s domestic politics, with China itself becoming an additional divisive factor?

Third, China is devoting megabucks to OBOR in all its manifestations, including MSR, the maritime silk route. The Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank will eventually capitalise at $100 billion, much of it from China; it has also announced $40bn for the Silk Road Fund, besides $32bn for the China Development bank and $30bn for its Exim Bank. These will fund a variety of projects – in Pakistan, in Myanmar for another set of connectors along the Irrawaddy basin, and elsewhere. It represents productive deployment of China’s $4 trillion reserves.

Finally, India’s only outward land corridor that is geographically robust and economically viable is to our East, giving access to lucrative markets, linking India’s Northeast to Bangladesh and Myanmar. This is because the land route to Tibet involves to pography challenge, and also hinges on how relations with might China develop.

We have long done ourselves a serious disservice in failing to develop road, rail and air links in our Northeast. How can we use it as a springboard to Southeast Asia, when we are yet to fully break out of a neo-colonial mindset in the way we treat the Northeast? Reversing this is not difficult, but requires mindset change plus determined action. The Northeast’s issues need holistic attention, involving both economic and infrastructure development, which has hitherto been seen almost exclusively in a security perspective. It needs domestic and foreign investments, blending in Japanese and South Korean – and Chinese – funding. That means unified actions from the home and foreign ministries as well as the Department of the Northeast, with full and genuine participation by local state governments in key decisions. An empowered taskforce is one option.

What are the policy choices, then, especially in the context of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s May 2015 visit to China? Without going overboard, welcome OBOR, reframing old connections to suit our own purpose. We cannot resent neighbours moving ahead with infrastructure projects that serve their interests, funded by Chinese munificence. Let us facilitate Chinese investments of $20bn in India over the next five years to serve our infrastructure needs. Our own limited funds too must be deployed on connectivity projects that suit us, like the promised India-Myanmar roads links; delay in releasing funds for implementation only brings us discredit. Chabahar port, and Iran, must be a top priority.

OBOR is simply a rubric, a framework for a series of individual investments in single countries or in a connected cluster, which build transport infrastructure, be it ports, roads, rail lines or pipelines. As an AIIB founder member, India will be a choice destination for many viable projects. On the wider canvas, such bilateral and regional economic cooperation can create political connections of the kind that change thinking about China – from it being a “threat”, towards understanding the possibilities from beneficial, balanced relations, competition notwithstanding.(Business Standard)

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